In a recent symposium in Stockholm, I had the great fortunate to speak alongside several colleagues on the topic of insurgency and public space in contemporary cities. The symposium series was organized by the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. Titled “City Axioms,” the focus of the series was to question the assumptions of city, in light of recent events around the world. Other themes in the series included Austerity Urbanism, Community and Sustainability, and Urban Insecurity.
Stockholm is an interesting place to be speaking about insurgency and public space. The city is actually quite well stocked with public spaces of different sizes and types, so much so that a recent installation of Park(ing) Day event there drew the curiosity as well as irks of passerby questioning the purpose of such activity where there is such an abundance of public space in the city.
The discussion at the symposium also turned out to be equally interesting. My co-presenters, Alex Vasudevan of the University of Nottingham and Maple Razsa from Colby College in Waterville, spoke respectively on the making of the Autonomous City (in the form of squatting, etc.) and the idea of ‘Urban Commoning’ (creation of alternative commons, also in the form of squatting, etc.) as alternatives to institutionalized public space. Rather than engaging in a debate concerning public space in today’s city, they seem inclined to abandon the idea altogether.
In the context of neoliberalism, Alex Vasudevan suggested, “public space is an argument we can never win.” I, on the other hand, argued that the notion of public and public space is fundamental to our vocabulary and discourse of democracy. It is a notion that still (perhaps to a lesser extent outside North America) resonates with many people – a collective realm that stands against privatization.
In Insurgent Public Space, I argue that public spaces can exist in a variety of forms and that the notion of public should be plural. As such, I wholeheartedly welcome the ideas of the Autonomous City and ‘Urban Commoning’ that enables individuals and small groups to create alternative realms of collective actions and expressions. But, unlike my co-presenters, I am not quite ready to throw away the idea of public space.
Rather than retreating from the discourse of public space, it seems even more critical at this point in time to reassert our right to public space and redefine the purpose of public space as a vehicle and building block of our democracy. It seems even more important today to question the making of most public spaces in today’s city, from privately owned public spaces, like Zuccotti Park, to privately managed spaces such as Bryant Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and even the Highline. If people from authoritarian states can manage to protest in the streets, why not those of us in a nation founded on principles of freedom and democracy?
For more information about the City Axioms Series, click here.
Jeff Hou is Associate Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washiongton, Seattle. He is the editor of "Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities" (Routledge 2010).